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2 bills target anti-gun lawsuits

The measures aim to keep state and local governments from holding gun manufacturers liable for gun violence.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Shortly after 15 people were gunned down last year by two students at Columbine High School in Colorado, the Florida Legislature joined several other states in shelving legislation to prevent cities from suing gun manufacturers.

But the National Rifle Association did not give up, and the effort is alive again this legislative session. Two Republican lawmakers, Rep. George Albright and Sen. Charles Bronson, have filed bills to prevent the state or local Florida governments from trying to hold gun manufacturers liable for gun violence. Neither could be reached for comment Friday.

Gun manufacturers make and sell a legal product, argues NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer, adding that the state has plenty of laws to punish people who use guns illegally.

"The Columbine tragedy gave liberal Democrats an opportunity to demagogue and hold up children as a reason to stop this legislation last year," she said Friday. "They are trying to use the courts to ban guns. They hope to bankrupt gun manufacturers or render guns totally useless."

The legislation is primarily aimed at Miami-Dade County, where Mayor Alex Penelas has sued gun manufacturers to recover the millions of dollars it spends on police and county hospital services as a result of gun crimes.

The suit was dismissed in December, but Penelas is working on an appeal. The bill also could prevent other local governments from following Miami-Dade's lead; if passed, it would affect any pending or future lawsuits.

"I'm certain it will pass -- you can't even get any reasonable gun safety laws passed in the Legislature," said a resigned Penelas, a Democrat and a big supporter of Al Gore's campaign for president. "We'll resort to the governor, and if he doesn't veto it, we'll resort to the courts, and if the courts uphold it, I guess we'll just have to go from there."

Only the timing of the Columbine tragedy derailed last year's bill, which up to then was on the fast track to passage. The proposal was supported by the leadership in the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Gov. Jeb Bush has said he was generally opposed to suits against gun manufacturers.

"We haven't had a chance yet to review this recently proposed legislation, but it's something we'll obviously take a close look at," Bush spokesman Justin Sayfie said Friday.

Nationally, lawsuits against gun manufacturers have become a tool by big city mayors, trial lawyers and gun control advocates who want to curb gun violence. Thirty local governments across the country are suing the industry.

Modeled after the arguments that attorneys general in dozens of states used against the tobacco industry, the cities' suits contend that the gun industry deliberately markets to criminals, has failed to install readily available safety devices and does not adequately warn consumers about the dangers of guns.

In response, the NRA and its allies are pushing legislation in Florida and other states to block the suits. Fourteen states have enacted bans, including Arizona, one of the states to back off last year after the Columbine tragedy. The Virginia legislature is the latest to pass a ban, and the governor is expected to sign it into law. In Florida, the issue likely will be hotly debated along partisan lines.

Democrats, hoping to take back control of at least the state Senate, have placed gun control at the top of their agenda in this election year. This week, just days after a Michigan first-grader shot and killed a classmate, they proposed a law to require gun owners to put trigger locks on firearms kept where children live.

Republicans shot down a similar proposal last year, and top GOP leaders remain opposed. Bans on lawsuits against gun manufacturers have not always been effective.

A judge last month allowed a lawsuit filed by New Orleans to go forward, ruling that Louisiana's ban was unconstitutional because it was applied retroactively. In October, another judge allowed Atlanta's lawsuit to go forward despite Georgia's ban.

"These bans are designed to be intimidation tactics, but we don't think they'll stand up in court," said Nancy Hwa, spokeswoman for the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, a Washington, D.C., group that is providing cities like Miami with legal assistance. "This is a legitimate use of the courts."

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